Sunday, December 18, 2011

Farewell to Iraq, Remember Camp Ashraf

I suppose we should be celebrating. US troops have just about finished withdrawing from Iraq.  Mission accomplished.  Oh, but what was the mission again?  Oh yes, find and destroy the stockpiles of weapons of mass destruction that Saddam Hussein had hidden away so slyly, those weapons that posed such a threat to the entire region’s security, indeed to the security of western civilization.  But they never were found, were they?  Oh well, mission not accomplished in that case. 
So what has been the cost?  In human terms: 4,500 American dead and thousands of Iraqi dead.  How many thousands of Iraqi?  Well, while we count every American causality, the best we can say regarding Iraqi causalities during this war is that lots were killed.  According to the conservative estimate of Iraq Bodycount, one of the few western organisations  that shows any interest in maintaining an account of the human damage inflicted by the Blair/Bush invasion, the number  of documented killings of Iraqi civilians since the joint US/UK invasion now stands at 113,755.

Otto Dix: The Flare

And what does the USA leave in its wake, beyond thousands of fresh graves and gutted buildings and a society torn by sectarian strife and violence? Well, the government of Nouri al-Maliki is not only Shi'ite Islamist, but becomes more pro-Iranian by the day.  Most appalling is the situation of Camp Ashraf, where 3,400 members of an Iranian mujahideen opposition group is facing a possible massacre as their protectors, the United States, walk out and leave them high and dry.  Their new “protectors” are the Iraqi government of al-Maliki, who earlier this year attacked the camp, killed 34 and injuring hundreds.  The camp has been in Iraq since the early 1980s and has been a thorn in the side of the Iranian leadership.  American troops disarmed the camp’s fighters in 2003 and in return promised the camp’s residents protection under the Geneva Conventions.  But the US turned control over to the Iraqi government.  Iran has been putting pressure on Iraq to close the camp and al-Maliki has promised that the camp will be closed by the end of this month.  The camp’s residents claim they will move, but only if they are collectively granted asylum in a third country, a demand supported by the United Nations.

The US has classified the leadership of  the camp as a terrorist organization.  How convenient.  Just like ‘weapons of mass destruction” was a convenient ploy.  The United Nations refutes the US designation, as does the European Union, just like the situation of WMDs back in 2003.  In fact the application of the terrorist tag by the United States is illegal under international law and has been condemned by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.  If Iraq moves against Camp Ashraf this will be a true act of terrorism. Yesterday the Vice-President of the European Parliament took the unusual step of placing a half-page advertisement in the New York Times and Washington Post calling for Hillary Clinton to demonstrate moral courage and for the US to assume responsibility for the protection of the 3,400 Ashraf residents who are facing a possible massacre. You can email President Obama via the Camp Ashraf website.

This morning I’ve been listening to the new album of Tom Waits, Bad as Me.  I’ve always found that there is something Weimaresque about Waits’ music. It always puts me in the mood of the great anti-war paintings and drawings of Dix and Grosz.  The work of these brave Weimar artists says all there is to be said about the futility and vulgarity of war.  They dared to hold up truth to counter jingoist myths. And now Waits, has summed up my feelings towards the war in Iraq:

“ how is it that the only ones responsible for making this mess
got their sorry asses stapled to a goddamn desk”.

Georg Grosz: The War Veteran
And Waits finishes his song "Hell Broke Luce" with the words
"now i'm home and i'm blind
and i'm broke
what is next?"

Monday, December 12, 2011

The Nahmad Collection at Zurich's Kunsthaus

If you’ve never heard of the Nahmad Collection, don’t worry, you can be forgiven. After all, although it is one of Europe’s most prestigious private art collections, it is not greatly known, never having been exhibited in public. That is, never until now. The exhibition currently showing at the Kunsthaus in Zurich is quite a coup, being the first ever exhibition of a portion (nearly 120 paintings) of this enigmatic collection. Zurich’s Kunsthaus is now firmly on the path of building a reputation for exhibiting the works of private collectors. Beginning with A Feast of Colours in 2006, which featured the Merzbacher-Mayer collection, and continuing with the incredible Buehrle Collection (which has now been donated to the Kunsthaus and will reappear in a permanent exhibition in the new David Chipperfield wing in 2015), the presentation of the Nahmad Collection, entitled Monet, Mattise , Miro, is the third such exhibition in recent years. We picked a Sunday afternoon in late November. The sun radiated unseasonable warmth from a brilliant Japanese winter blue sky. We guessed correctly that most Swiss would strap on their hiking boots or saddle up their mountain bikes and head for the hills and forests on such a beautiful day. It could have been a Monday morning – one could contemplate the seven Modigliani’s in silence, stand before the Toulous- Lautrecs without being elbowed, view the single Bonnard portrait without having to first wait in a line. The exhibition begins with late 19th century Post-Impressionism and then takes us through a selection of highlights from most of the major modernist movements – Fauvism, Cubism, Abstractism, Constructivism and Surrealism. The Monets mostly are southern scenes, for instance of Venice, like this one of The Contarini Palace that evokes the city’s frayed splendor.

One room contains five Kandinskys, all of which are interesting, most of which are abstract, though I must admit my favourite is this still (just about) figurative “Study for Improvisation 3”, though I do find the title an oxymoron – can one have a study for an improvisation?

The Modiglianis are superb and it is a special experience seeing seven of his portraits on one wall, facing a half dozen works of Mattisse. But if seven Modiglianis seems like a lot, the exhibition contains no fewer than 13 Miros, all of them major works and spanning the artists entire career, and 30 Picassos from the early 20th century until the year of the artist's death in 1973, including his famous “Portrait of the Artist’s Son, Paulo, as Harlequin”, a painting that hasn’t been seen in public for decades.

But this is simply the tip of a hidden iceberg. The Nahmads are a Jewish family, originally from Aleppo, Syria. They moved to Beirut in the late forties and to Milan in the late fifties, accumulating fortune of well over 3 billion dollars through art dealing. The family currently resides in Monaco, for tax reasons I suspect, and have art galleries on Madison Avenue in New York and Cork Street in London. The family’s entire private collection consists of about 3,000 paintings and includes hundreds of works of Picasso. They keep their collection hidden away in an underground storage facility in Geneva where it is rarely viewed by any human eye. This might seem obscene to you. Perhaps the exhibition in the Kunsthaus in Zurich can be considered the secretive family’s “coming out”.

The exhibition runs until January 15th when, presumably, all of these fine works disappear again.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Forest Kindergarten

For two years my little girl went to kindergarten in the forest. Not a school in the forest, just the forest. No walls, no roof, no heating, only the forest, a few tools, and incredibly dedicated teachers. In the heat of the summer, in the lashing rain and even in the sub-zero temperatures of the Swiss winter, she would meet her class at the bus stop outside our house and they would trek for twenty minutes into their clearing in the forest, free to indulge in the savagery that is unfettered childhood, no computor, or plastic or chalk board in sight. One day she came home from a day of particularly vicious downpours, her feet inevitably soaked, her eyelashes caked in mud, her cheecks ruddy with the cold and her eyes sparkling with fire, and I said to her it must have been tough being outside all morning in such weather. She looked at me in genuine incomprehension, looked out the window: "What weather?" she asked. An American film director has now made a documentary about our village kindergarten. Here is a preview.
School's Out: Lessons from a Forest Kindergarten from Rona Richter on Vimeo.